Reflections of Africa
President Maurie McInnis shares her thoughts and photographs from her recent trip to Stony Brook’s facilities in Kenya and Madagascar.
This past January, President McInnis traveled to Africa to visit the Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya and Centre ValBio in Madagascar, two of Stony Brook’s most important international research endeavors. Here, she shares her impressions and photography of the incredible landscapes, the inspiring wildlife, the historic discoveries and the critical work being done.
The Continuing Legacy of Richard Leakey
At Stony Brook University, we know the late Dr. Richard Leakey as one of the most seminal paleontologists of our time. And he was so much more: a convener of international researchers on human evolution in east Africa, groundbreaking wildlife conservationist, animal rights advocate, intrepid pilot and plane crash survivor, passionate mentor, committed teacher, unparalleled scholar, wicked wit, and beloved husband and father. His impact remains deeply felt across Kenya and the world. Stony Brook began its association with Richard in 2002 and over the next decade he directed the construction of TBI-Ileret and TBI-Turkwel to support researchers.
While in Kenya, I attended his memorial service, held on a windy and dusty day at the family’s home outside Nairobi. Richard’s final resting place is a cairn — a man-made burial mound of stones — on a hill along the Great Rift Valley. The intention is for loved ones and visitors to add a stone each time they come to pay their respects, and I find this incredibly fitting: as Richard’s cairn grows and changes with each visitor, so too does his legacy, morphing and evolving with time, much like the magisterial landscape of Kenya.
The vastly disparate landscapes of Kenya are mesmerizing. Nestled between Nairobi and Lake Turkana is an extraordinary desert landscape where the temperatures are known to reach well above 110 degrees and that is covered in immense and shifting sand dunes.
From a distance, one could easily imagine these huge dunes as massive concrete structures — perhaps even the kind of poured concrete that comprises the TBI facilities. And yet, on closer inspection, these dunes are always transforming. The wind creates structures, hills, and valleys whose monumental size makes them appear permanent and yet, because of that same wind, they are in a constant state of motion. The landscape in Kenya is in a perpetual state of change — always, shifting, eroding, and reinventing itself.
You can imagine that for a photographer, the evolving patterns and dramatic lighting make the dunes a captivating subject.
Sleeping and Waking in the Turkana Basin
The concrete facilities at TBI are stolid and impressive. In a harsh and arid landscape, TBI has created extensive facilities to support the work of students and researchers. Poured concrete buildings provide housing, dining, and research and teaching facilities. There is also an extensive array of infrastructure including water purification, solar-powered energy storage, and hydroponic farming to support the people living there.
The conditions are challenging for the researchers and students who work there. Rarely does the temperature go below 90 degrees…and the concrete buildings turn out to be like ovens. Most evenings, you will find most people sleeping outdoors on the porches, hoping for a breeze. The challenging conditions make you really appreciate, and admire, the training, skill, and perseverance of TBI researchers and staff even more.
Walks Through Time
Working at TBI are some of the most innovative scientists and paleontologists of our time. And its buildings house some of the extraordinary fossils discovered in the Turkana Basin.
Processing fossils — separating fossils from the stone in which they’re embedded — is an exact and learned skill, and throughout the facility you see staff engaged in this work. TBI was founded not only as a site where researchers from across the world could come to study, but as a resource for expanding the scientific and educational opportunities for Kenyans.
Stored here is a dazzling array of fossils, from massive and intimidating crocodiles to the tiniest of rodents and archaeological artifacts, like the earliest tools in use by human ancestors. The Turkana Basin is such an important research site because of its rich fossil record of the evolution of humans and hundreds of other species. While hominid fossils are exceedingly rare, the ground is literally awash in evidence of more plentiful species. On one of our afternoon “fossil walks,” Louise Leakey tried to teach us how to spot fossils in the otherwise rocky and arid landscape. I proved not quite as skilled a fossil-hunter as the rest of my group (my specialty was apparently finding plant roots) but others found fossils such as a 3.5 million-year-old crocodile vertebra! At TBI, researchers are regularly making discoveries that expand our understanding of evolution — from fossils from the Miocene epoch (23.03 to 5.333 million years ago) to a 3 million-year-old ape skull found in 2017.
It’s honestly hard to define the career, and impact, of TBI’s founder, Richard Leakey. He was one of the most seminal paleoanthropologists of our time. He and his family are part of a legacy of researchers broadening our understanding of human origins in east Africa. He was an innovator in creating permanent facilities in this area, bringing together scientists from all over the world to focus on Kenya and analyze human adaptability in the face of climate change. He was a groundbreaking wildlife conservationist and head of the National Wildlife Service who led the controversial “ivory burn” in 1989, a symbolic act against poaching. He was an animal rights advocate. He was a mentor, a teacher, and a scholar. He was a pilot and a survivor of a catastrophic plane crash. He was a beloved father and husband. And he was also, not unimportantly, a ton of fun to be around. I was honored to have had the opportunity to get to know him when I began my tenure at Stony Brook. Family, friends, researchers, and scholars across the world mourned his passing in 2022. While in Kenya, I attended his memorial service, which was held at the family’s home outside Nairobi.
Richard Leakey touched the lives of so many people in so many different ways. His memorial service was attended by reporters and writers, influential researchers and conservationists, former students and mentees, family, friends, and admirers. And what was so very clear from hearing the service’s speakers, almost all of whom were Kenyan, was that Dr. Richard Leakey impacted people in a profound way. So many people spoke to the way his advocacy, activism, and actions for a better world have shaped Kenya, have inspired their own careers, and have challenged them to use their talent and resources toward effecting positive change.
A Canopy of Green
We went from the sun bleached and dry landscape of TBI to what feels like the exact opposite. Stony Brook’s Centre ValBio is nestled in the dense, lush, and colorful rainforest.
Walking around the Ranomafana National Forest with Dr. Patricia Wright — the Founder and Executive Director of Centre ValBio in the Ranomafana rainforest in Central Madagascar — is an exhilarating experience. Stony Brook study abroad students often spend their days in the forest, conducting research on the animals and vegetation of Madagascar with a special focus on critically endangered lemur species.
One of the main research subjects is Simone, the last Greater Bamboo Lemur in the entire Ranomafana National Park. Lemurs are primates and are very social creatures — living and traveling in family systems, grooming and talking to each other, and eating a lot of bamboo — and so as the last of her species in the forest, Simone has been trying to join another lemur family of a different species.
The Greater Bamboo Lemur is one of the many species that call the rainforest home.
When I was there, the other lemurs were tolerant of her though she was not fully integrated. Recently, Centre ValBio has successfully translocated a dozen Greater Bamboo Lemurs from unprotected areas and in time they will be released into the protected Ranomafana National Forest. Hopefully, Sime will connect with the relocated Greater Bamboo Lemurs, giving her the social interaction she craves.
Ring tailed lemurs.
A chameleon in Madagascar.
A friendly spider!
A cheetah on the prowl.
A cheetah gets a little too close.
Life-Changing and Full of Life
For many of our students, this trip to Centre ValBio was the first time they had traveled outside the United States. We often speak of study abroad as one of those life-transforming experiences that education can help create. Talking with these students was such vivid confirmation of that, as it was clear they had learned so much more than primate interaction or the epidemiological challenges of healthcare in communities without access to clean water. Although they had learned an impressive amount about that too. They now understood themselves in the world very differently, with many of them expanding their career goals and ambitions based on this experience. On our last day, we were treated to presentations on their research projects, which ranged widely — across flora and fauna, food source issues, and other subjects both specific to the Ranomafana and with larger global implications.
For millennia, Madagascar was untouched by human civilization, with many native species endemic to Madagascar and Madagascar alone. This biodiversity is threatened as many of these species are critically endangered due to human interference. Studying here gives our Stony Brook students — not to mention our researchers — a depth of perspective perhaps unlike any other. Not only do they learn about the urgency of protecting our planet’s biodiversity, but they also work to develop solutions that will support human flourishing without the necessity of destroying the rainforest.